Monday, November 28, 2016

Advent: The "O" Antiphons

Advent Music!  “Good grief!   Does this mean we have to sing dirges for four whole weeks?? No Christmas carols at all?  Just “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” for a month?  With all those verses??”
Well, as you probably guessed, I happen to love Advent hymns.  But I wasn’t raised singing them.  It wasn’t until I rediscovered my Lutheran heritage as an adult about ten years ago that I became enthralled with its lyrics, music, message, and origins in the ancient Church.  Many of these melodies are based on chants dating back to the third century of the Common Era.  I find them to be a marvelous, meaningful antidote to the frenzy and hype of modern commercialism this time of year.  Did you know that hymns 239-267 of Evangelical Lutheran Worship, our newest Lutheran “hymnal,”  are all Advent hymns? That’s 28 hymns for Advent —   and surprise! — “Joy to the World (#267) ” is one of them!
Now,  I suppose you’re still wondering about “O Come, O Come Emmanuel (#257).”  This is just one example of many ancient chants found among those 28 hymns.  This is probably the quintessential Advent hymn. It is derived from seven “O Antiphons” for use at the Vespers before and after the Magnificat in the last days of Advent, from December 17 to 23.  Loaded with Old and New Testament references, these antiphons come from the time of Charlemagne in the eighth century or earlier and are as follows:

December 17
O Sapientia, quae es ora altissima . . . = O Wisdom from on High
December 18
O Adonai et dux domus Israel . . .   = O Lord and leader of the house of Israel!
December 19
O Radix Jesse qui stas in signum popularum . . . = O Root of Jesse, who stood as a standard of the people…
December 20
O Clavis David et spectrum domus Israel . . . `= O Key of David and scepter of the house of Israel . . .
December 21
O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae . . . = O Dayspring, splendor of eternal light, 
December 22
O Rex gentium, et desideratus earum . . . = O longed-for King of nations . . .
December 23
O Emmanuel, rex et legifer noster . . . = O Emmanuel, our king and lawgiver…

The first letters of the key second words, when they are read backwards, spell Ero cras,  which means “I will be tomorrow,” that  is, on Christmas Eve, December 24.  You get the Advent message of preparation by waiting for it day by day. letter by letter.  But it also suggests an even deeper meaning for the entire church year.  In reading the acrostic backwards, the opposite suggests “I was yesterday.”(1)  (“Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever.” ~ Hebrews 13:8)  

Thanks be to God.  A blessed Advent season to all of you!!

(1) Paul Westermeyer, Evangelical Lutheran Worship Hymnal Companion.  Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress (2010), 24-25.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Triduum Retreat -- Trappe, PA -- April 9, 2016

At first glance, the Three Days’ Retreat scheduled to be held in Trappe, PA this past weekend seemed to have a similar feel to one I had attended in 2014, based on the same theme.  We were to celebrate the Three Days — Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil — using the festival liturgy based on John, experiencing it all as one continuous service taking place within the span of a single day.   I rode up to Trappe in the same car, with the same driver (Sharon Richter).  The weather, however, seemed a bit more foreboding than what was forecasted two years ago, resembling a spring day to a much greater degree, so to speak.  So, armed with my pan of frozen lasagna (as instructed for the pot luck), we parked the car and trudged through the rain into the main church building, where we were meeting in the parish hall.
What also made it different this year was that this was now a joint event with the folks from Gettysburg Seminary.   Sharing and connecting seemed to happen almost as soon as we climbed into our respective carpools, continuing into our setup in the Fellowship Hall of Augustana Lutheran Church.  One of my colleagues from LTSP was struggling to put together her sermon for the next day, and a student from Gettysburg was more than happy to walk through the Gospel reading with her, offering some very astute suggestions.  I found it very heartening to witness this exchange, especially in light of the imminent changes to both seminaries.
Before we knew it, it was time to practice for the Maundy Thursday service.  We walked over to the beautiful old church, taking care not to trip over the various stones embedded in the walkway. Each was marked with the name of a founding immigrant congregation, many from the German Vaterland, so this was very interesting.  I tried to find hints linking me to the Black Forest and southern Germany, where my parents and ancestors were born.
After lunch, people began filing in for the service, all bundled up in their winter clothing, hats, and gloves.  It was probably about 35 degrees in that old stone building, which, needless to say, had no heat.  During lunch, there were slight murmurings regarding the foot-washing fro the Maundy Thursday portion.  How this would be handled in the cold was anybody’s guess, but the leaders seemed to know what they were doing and set up for it as though it was that same spring day (65 degrees) two years earlier.
There is a quaint clock tower somewhere on the premises that chimes at every quarter hour.  This is a nice way to mark the time — the Westminster Chimes chopped up into palatable quarters like four generous slices of pizza.  I could go for having my time divvied up like this on a regular basis.  We couldn’t help but mark the time as it chimed on the quarter-hours, and hearing this, sometimes interspersed with our singing, made the time fly.  Since this was the second time I had attended this retreat, I sensed more of a flow now.  The three services moved in and out of each other and it was, indeed, like a single service moving through the Three Days.
Another element of this experience was its sensual, experiential aspect.  Yes, it was quite cold that day, and this will continue to loom large in our collective memory, but there is no substitute for meeting in a 300 year old chilly, damp, church with stark wooden benches and a cobblestone floor.  It instantly transported us into a simpler time, when dealing with the elements was a much larger challenge than it is today, and hence, a much larger part of life itself.  It illuminated and informed what was going on inside of us, and this was particularly prevalent at the Good Friday service, though it began on Maundy Thursday.
The first few hymns for the first service were rather tentative, as many participants seemed apprehensive about spending most of this day out here in a frigid church.  The nervous energy increased somewhat as the foot-washing began.  I never had any doubt that I wanted to participate, so I was one of the first to squeeze out of those narrow pews with the doors on them and sit out front.  I wore my Ugg boots (barefoot in sheepskin boots), so taking them off was no big deal because I purposely didn’t wear socks.  I was a tad bit afraid of my bum toe, which was taped to the next toe since I thought I had broken it a few days earlier.
None of this seemed to matter, because for me, it wasn’t about my own feet being washed.  There was an older African American woman I had seen around campus previously but never met personally, and I got to wash her feet.  Later she told me she had never experienced this before.  The water was comfortably warm and it really felt great to have our feet washed, despite the cold.  Truly, what felt even better was to be able to cradle this lady’s foot in my hand and pour the water over her feet and dry them off.  It was a big step closer to community.  The service ended differently from the way it began.  We found a common purpose.  WE were “gathered.”  Yes, this happened earlier in a different way at lunch, but now we were gathered in a more ancient sense, through the common bond of our Christian faith.
I had the honor of taking part as a cantor for the Gospel (The Passion of Saint John), chanting the role of the crowd and other characters (known as the Sinagoga).  Physically being transported to this very different location and portraying such a poignant story thrust all three of the cantors (Lorraine Cotter, Dr. Michael Krentz and myself) into an almost alternate universe for a time.  Following this chanted Gospel reading was Jay Mitchell’s extremely poignant Sermon, in which he told the story of the Crucifixion through the lens of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  His flashbacks to the early days of Jesus as a boy (while he was hanging on the cross, dying)  showed a great sensitivity to her plight as Christ’s human mother.   As he chanted the Solemn Reproaches, Dr. Michael Krentz was audibly moved.  He choked up as he sang from the small balcony, “…but you have prepared a cross for your Savior,”  which moved us all to tears.  Between the chanted Passion, the Sermon, the Adoration of the Cross, and the Solemn Reproaches, we had all moved into a much more intimate space both together and individually.  We were now connected to one another by virtue of sharing a deeper individual connection to Christ’s Passion.
Coming out of this, we took a break for dinner.  In many ways it was a much-needed pause, because the Tenebrae service was so intense.  When I was there two years ago, it was a lovely spring day and we were able to wander around the graveyard and look at the old headstones, some dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries.  This year, however,  the old cemetery was covered with an increasingly thick “dusting” of snow (on April 9, no less) which looked stunningly beautiful and incited different feelings that were no less contemplative.  It just brought out other elements in a different way.  I tended to see the snow-covered graveyard holistically — as a single, white, textured entity that stood for something greater than ourselves.  The springtime cemetery, on the other hand,  was something to walk through and explore, the damp grass something squishy to navigate through.
Before we knew it, sunset loomed, and it was time to begin the Easter Vigil.  Since we couldn’t walk through the cemetery, we gathered on the steps of the Fellowship Hall and built the fire in the parking lot in front of it.  Our gathering now felt different from the way we left Good Friday.  We had now moved from being a community to being a unit, and what struck me were the folks from other traditions and how they seemed to have gone through a metamorphosis of sorts.  At the beginning, their main concern (and all of ours, really) was staying warm, and there was this prevailing uncertainty about the whole experience.  Now we stood together, clumped on the porch and steps of this building, lighting our individual candles, laughing, and chatting excitedly.  Those who had never gone through this type of day were almost giddy in anticipation.  I think they were ready for Easter, but this Vigil service surprised them.  It was evident once the service began, and the Exsultet was being sung.  Imagine a chanted Exsultet , peppered with “Yess” and “Amen!”  It was truly rich to hear, and it catapulted us downstairs for the readings.  All of the readings (Moses, Miriam’s Song, Nebuchadnezzar, the Fiery Furnace, among others) were punctuated by some very well-matched songs and percussion instruments such as rain sticks, Djembes, and a shruti box (think India and drones on a perfect fifth).  The stories were all read so well, with charismatic and colorful flavor.  The responses to each narrative were spontaneous and of the type you would hear in a Baptist church.  It was worship of the engaged, connected kind.  It was beautiful (but perhaps challenging for the reader) to see the lectern lit solely by the light of about a half-dozen candles.
We sang, we read, and the warmth in our hearts catapulted us forward and back upstairs, toward the path to the church, where we would stop at the font to remember our Baptism.  All that fire!  All those candles!  And the cold!  We could see our breath as we sang “Alleluia!”  Then we were all sprinkled with clear, sparkling water!  This moment, indeed, felt “new.”
Refreshed, we moved down the tiny aisle of the church, now completely dark in and of itself, but illuminated with close to 40 candles, if not more.  We sang more Alleluias as we prepared for the Eucharist.  This time we had all simply gathered around the Table, we did not sit in the pews.  The music lent itself to movement and dancing.  The Passing of the Peace was lively.  For me, Communion was profound as this remarkable day came to a close.
I knew I would probably come away from this retreat with a deeper, more profound sense of spirituality, especially since I had done this before.  What I didn’t expect this time around was the authentic connection between me and my classmates, for which I am extremely grateful.  One moment that stands out for me is the short chat I had with Benson Williams before the Tenebrae service.  We had just put on our albs and he remarked how he felt a bit like a fish out of water, and we shared experiences since we were both raised in the Pentecostal Church.  We marveled how some of the more drastic differences between this and more liturgical traditions actually had more commonalities than are seen at face value, and how both elements (structure and “spirit,” for lack of a better description) are needed in worship of any sort, regardless of denomination.
I found a new bond with my brother Benson and washed the feet of an older lady I had never met before.  I wept with Lorraine while freezing on an incredibly uncomfortable bench during Jay Mitchell’s sermon, I met a really nice guy from Gettysburg named Eric, took some incredible pictures  of the stained glass windows at Augustana Lutheran, and had wonderful conversations with Sharon, Evelyn and Maggie on the drive to and from the retreat.  It truly was an essential and unforgettable experience.  Thanks be to God!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

America's Gone Sheepish: BAnter, BAcklash, and Backstabbing

“There’s something crooked about that Hillary, she can’t be trusted,” commented my high school bff, sullying my pristinely optimistic Facebook page.

Really?  In this day and age of political civility?  How is this even possible?

I kind of get it.  On the surface, it looks weird.  The former First Lady moves to New York in order to gain residency so that she can run for Senator.  So what?  She wanted to be Senator.  She ran. She won.  Personally, I have no problem with that.  They elected her.  I, too, am a New York native, though I left and resettled in the warmer climes of Pennsylvania long before she became “their” Senator.  I would have loved to have her as my senator.  Still, I hear disgruntled rumblings from most New York State residents, so I had to do some detective work to find out more about the horrible things she did there to make that many people upset — apparently so upset that she still won the primary in “their” state.

What’s up with that?  Did she threaten to build a wall or something?  Does Hillary have an image problem?  Is shrill really worse than obnoxious?

Shall we take a look? I will try to remain unbiased.  After all, objectivity is awfully hard to come by these days.  Objectively speaking, Clinton has more experience than any other presidential candidate, no matter what conjecture says.  She has a proven track record, just by virtue of having endured as long as she has.  Doesn’t this count for anything?

Just today (April 27), the Washington Post proclaimed, “Clinton is the only insider surviving in the year of the outsider.”  The Republican party has chosen an outsider for their front-runner, and the Democrats are going with an insider.  Robert Shurm, a strategist who is a veteran of Democratic presidential campaigns, explains why:  “I think Democrats really want to win, and they’re not willing to sacrifice winning to ideology and grievance, which I think in the Republican Party is the case”

Benghazi?  According to, “The Fact Checker previously looked into allegations that Hillary Clinton had told two stories after the 2012 Benghazi attacks that left four Americans dead — a private one that it was a terrorist attack and the public one that blamed Muslim outrage over a YouTube video. The evidence was mixed, open to interpretation, but we concluded that there was not enough for GOP rivals to make definitive judgments that she lied.“ “The Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on the House Benghazi committee each distorted the facts during TV appearances to discuss the committee’s work.”

Campaign finance reform is overrated and could be yet another smokescreen to diffuse the real issues and the true merits of candidates that really matter and could move this country forward, merits and facts that could lead to making informed decisions.

The age-old concern remains:  What are we teaching our kids if we give in to this circus?  The OJ Trial was never put to rest, so what do they do?  Give him a reality show.  Trump’s Apprentice is off the air, so now he runs for President, making little distinction between his experiences as a businessman and reality TV star.  And we’re buying into the drama, the fluff, the freak show — hook, line and sinker.

We need to spend more time checking facts and less time listening to the endless circle of shouting matches on television.  What are we really hearing?  Is it anything of substance, or just the 24/7 barrage of 3 B’s (banter, backlash, and backstabbing) between candidates?

Instead of waving our Bibles around in lame ideological efforts to save our country in the name of God, perhaps we could look at 2 Timothy 1:7 (NRS) “for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” Let’s start using that power to make informed choices!

Lisa H. Thomas is a wife, mother, music director, and MDiv/MAR degree candidate at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. She lives in Northeast Philadelphia.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

He Came Down

Click click... rip.. rip.. rip.... tick tick tick....

The pages of the calendar are torn off one by one and fly into the air, and the big hand of the clock goes around in a circle.  It’s like those old newsreels from the 1950s and 60s to indicate the passage of time.  How interesting that in this age of smartphones, computers, digital devices and such that everything can be measured down to the nanosecond. There’s really no element of time that can’t be measured, and yet things can be broken down to the tiniest, most infinitesimal degree, yet… Time still goes by so fast.  It always amazes me.

Although I don’t want to preach the calendar today, I know I will end up talking about time, like it or not.  We all know that the holiday season is winding down.  People are tired.   I know that can’t be the only one when I say that I feel fat and sluggish, and it may take us a couple of weeks to get back into our regular routines again.  

What better time to hear about what we’re really talking about today, and that is the Word.  That most wonderful passage from the first chapter of John, that just blows my mind and is probably one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture.  But this wasn’t always the case.  This is the Prologue to the Book of John, the Fourth Gospel, written as hymn.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God.”  I don’t know about you, but I used to find it to be a bunch of confusing words.  Sometimes I still do, but if you look and listen closely, it gives you a window into heaven and the seeds of God’s truth — a clearer vision of things we cannot ordinarily describe with words. 

Words. The WORD — the logos, Greek for “Word, Spirit, Mind.”  The Word is not only the Word of God — today we know it as the Bible, because that’s what we have in our hands today, something tangible.  But the Word existed long before  that.  It is God’s identity.  It makes me think of God’s spirit in the Genesis story of creation, “hovering over the face of the deep,” before anything was made.

“HE was in the beginning with God.”  Jesus, the Holy Spirit.  The Trinity.

“All things came into being through him” — through God — “and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

What was the first word God said when he created the universe?  “Let there be LIGHT!”  

The LIGHT.  My mother told me that the first word I ever spoke was a german word.  My siblings and I grew up speaking German, and I didn’t really grasp how to speak proper English until I was about 5 or 6.  I used the word “Lichtele,” which means “little light,”  like “this little light of mine, I’m gonna LET it shine…”  

There it is.  I’ll ask you again.  What was the FIRST WORD God said when He created the universe?  I’m saying this because of the word “LET.”  It’s not like you’re gonna “make” it shine — it’s THERE already!  God has given it to us (Jesus gave it to me…) so I’m gonna LET it shine.

Although, LIGHT seems like the operative word here, we need to focus on the fact that he said LET there be light, implying that the light was always there, before and throughout eternity, before time even began for us.  Let.  Allow.  “Let your light shine,” not MAKE the light.  That was already done for us.  The light has always been there. We need to allow it to continue. 

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” 
Have there NOT been times when it appears that the darkness has overcome it?  Look at our world today.  All you have to do is read one of the Year in Review articles in the news this week— to get the sense that there is much to FEAR - the refugee situation, not just in Europe but all over the world; gun violence in our cities and schools, natural disasters that seem to hit the most needy when they least expect it, vital funding being postponed or withheld by those in places of power…

We are living in a world of fear.  That fear permeates our society right now. Right on the edge of our daily life looms the threat of terrorism and violence, strange things happening at things that are supposed to be happy, like the Mummer’s Day Parade, where certain groups of people, because of fear, cannot understand others that are not of the same racial, political, or belief system as they.  It causes tension. It causes nervous laughter and strange versions of comedy that offend others.

These are just a few examples that make us think that maybe the darkness has overcome it.

But Jesus tells us “Be of good courage, for I have overcome the world.”  So we know that we can go on, because the light is there.  And it continues to shine.  Because the darkness has not — and will not — overcome it.
  • Are we willing to stand with the light of Christ as it continues to shine in the darkness?
  • Are we willing to be children of God in response to God’s willingness to be born a child for us?
These are some of the questions that John’s Prologue asks each time it is read.

Just last week, after our 10 pm Christmas Eve service, a very tired and exhausted me plunked herself down on the couch after playing and singing three services that evening.  As I’ve customarily done for the past 5 years or so, I turned on the Midnight Mass from the Vatican

And so we went through the service, hearing familiar readings as well as songs, when all of a sudden a beautiful image popped up. I believe it was after the Gospel reading. They brought up this huge volume which was actually an ancient copy of the Book of John, filled with drawings and colorful lettering, presumably from the early centuries of Christendom.  They raised the book as was done during the reading of the Gospel (John 1), and then carried it over to the statue of the Baby Jesus, opening the book and placing it behind him.

To see the WORD made FLESH in such a tangible way gave me goosebumps and made me  want to shout “Glory to God!”

Pope Francis started reading in Italian, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God.”  
In the beginning - takes us back to Genesis, back to the time when God created the Earth.  Here we’re talking Time again — God’s time.  And I want to keep these pictures in your mind as we go along — that God’s time is quite a bit different from ours We read in Psalms as well as 2 Peter - “a thousand ages in our sight” equal about a day in God’s time. 

God’s time is outside of our own earthly perception.  It’s constantly going back to the beginning, in the form of a circle.  God’s grace, God renews us, is restoring us. God created the earth, yet he continues to create every day, so it’s always this circle.  So we have us, and we have God, in this continuum.

And the great thing about this continuum, this circular pattern, is that we could jump out of our line into God’s circle anytime we want to, and He will accept us and take us right into that circle.  There will not be a time we’ll have to wait.  God is there for us, will meet us where we are, and take us on that ride like in a carousel, a merry-go-round, not skipping a beat.  

Then we have the coming of Jesus, which breaks into our little time line rather suddenly and at a very distinctive point.  God came down to us — vertical — came down! — into our line, and intersected it so that we may live in community with God forever.  

God did that for us by sending His son, at the appointed time.  There we have the cross — God’s coming down and intersects with our linear lives.  And yet, surrounding all of that, is God’s grace, God’s circle.  

Christ came down into our living history at a very decisive point.  It was a time appointed by God.  AS we experience over the past couple of weeks he came as a baby in a very unlikely way.

Because God came down into our history, to combat fear - the constant fear of being attacked and hurt, robbed of life as we know it, he came down that we might have LOVE.

Christ came down that we might have LIGHT.  Light that shines in the darkness, light that lights up our world and makes US lights in the world to help others.

LOVE, LIGHT, PEACE. All those things together give us JOY.  And I pray that the joy that came to the world that night in Bethlehem will stay with you throughout 2016 and the rest of your lives, because that is why God came down as Jesus, and those are the things that tell us that Jesus is here. 

LOVE, LIGHT, PEACE and JOY.  May it be yours, now and always.  AMEN.

Friday, October 23, 2015

“What do you want me to do FOR YOU?”

Mark 10:46-52 (NRSV)
46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher,[a] let me see again.” 52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

October 22, 2015
Lectionary 30, Year B (October 25, 2015)

Since yesterday was "Back to the Future Day," I thought it only fitting to go back in time, so I hope you will indulge me.  It is April Fool’s Day, 1996.  Giessen, Germany, about a half hour northeast of Frankfurt.  I had been officially pregnant for exactly 292 days, and it was finally my daughter’s due date.  So far this day had lived up to its name.  It had been raining, the car was in the shop,  so I took a bus to my midwife’s, since I thought my water had broken.  She checked it out, shook her head and sent me back home  — on yet another bumpy, painful bus ride (complete with Volksmusik, which needs to be experienced in order to be understood.  It's a little bit like a blend of German folk music and American country) back to our little village.

The day dragged on, and I spent much of it sitting on the porcelain throne, not daring to move from this place because every second felt like something was about to happen, only it never did.  I felt like this oversize water balloon with a slow leak.  It was a vague but increasingly real discomfort that left me stuck.  Already, but not yet.

My mother was visiting us at the time, in hopes of sharing this blessed event.  I called her over and told her that I couldn’t go on this way, it must be time to maybe do something.  She convinced me it was high time I call the midwife again, and that’s all I needed to hear.  In my magical way of thinking, calling the midwife might be the answer to my problems, at least the uncertianty.  
My mother dialed (yes, dialed!) the phone and talked to her first.  In a tone about as decisive as mine (the apple fell not far from the tree), she pleads, “Frau Heidorn, we don’t know what to do.”

Already I’m shaking my head, knowing what she’s going to say.

“What do you mean ‘we’ don’t know what to do?’” Let me talk to the Mother,”
(yeah right) So I get on the phone.  The words crackled on the other end of the receiver (yes, “receiver!”) because in those days I was still tethered to a landline.

“Frau Thomas, what do you want me to do for you?”

Not exactly the most comforting words a woman in labor wants to hear.  I wanted her to tell me what to do, to bail me out of my discomfort!  At first her words irked me, but then I understood. It really put matters into my OWN hands, and in a strange way empowered me, because I had to be the one to decide whether or not ir was time to go to the hospital.  She said, “Call me again when you’re ready.”  She didn’t want to take that power away from me. I ended up having no choice but to run with it and trust my own ability to make decisions, and ended up having a drug-free birth with no complications.  

Even if we don’t realize it at the time, this kind of empowerment can be a gift that leads to wholeness and healing.  Please pray with me.

Loving God, we thank You for your presence here with us.  We thank you for your power in both the stillness and the storm.  Thank you for loving us enough to call us, and trusting us enough to let us act so that we in turn can cast all our cares upon you.  May your Spirit speak to and through us now.  In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

  • “They came to Jericho.”  Jericho, that city located near the Jordan River in the West Bank, as volatile a city now as it was in the time of Jesus and before.  It’s a disputed fact, but Jericho may well be the oldest continuously occupied city in the world.  The springs in and around the city attracted human habitation dating as far back as 11,000 years. It was the city which Joshua and his army circled for seven days, until they blew their trumpets and, as the song says, the walls came tumbling down.  Even the city they are coming from holds implications for what we’re going to talk about today. 
Jesus is traveling with his disciples and a large entourage.  And then he encounters Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, the blind man.  Wait a minute.  Didn’t Jesus just heal a blind man a couple of chapters earlier?  How is this different?

  • The blind man back in Mark 8 is pretty passive, but Bartimaeus is not.  He takes the initiative and makes himself known.   In a literal “shout-out:’ “Jesus. Son of David, have mercy on me!”  we notice that perhaps Bart is not as blind as we make him out to be.  Could it be that here in this story, he functions as the one who truly “sees” Jesus for who he is and what He is capable of doing?  
I don’t  know about you, but if you heard Dr. Wiseman in Chapel yesterday, you may have learned a thing or two about countercultural shouting.  (song?) According to this text, there were many folks around trying to shush Bartimaeus — and for a number of reasons.  It was a pretty monumental thing to refer to Jesus as the Son of David, implying that he was in the royal line of the great kings of Israel.  In fact, this is the very first time in the Bible in real time, if you will, that Jesus is actually  referred to as the Son of David.  Many in that crowd must have feared a major scandal.

  • Monumental, countercultural, and dangerous.  They are probably embarrassed by this motely, blind dude, and trying to protect Jesus as well. Remember, he hadn’t yet made that triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  That happens right after this, in the next chapter.  And so they did more than shush him.  The Greek uses the word epitimao, which means “rebuke,”  the same verb Jesus used to cast out demons. So it was probably more like “Shut up!”  
Jesus stops and stands still.  “Call him,” he says.  He doesn’t single out Bartimaeus, but calls on the disciples to bring him over.  (God doesn’t call the equipped, but equips the called).  What follows is a sort of commotion as he throws off his mantle and comes to Jesus, actively insistently, empowered. 
Everyone is waiting for Jesus to zap Bartimaeus to witness yet another amazing miracle, but what happens?

  • Jesus’ words are very specific.  His answer here really jumped out at me from this passage, so I walked around for a while trying to remember it, and I’d always mistakenly paraphrase it to myself as “What do you want me to do?”  
But that’s the human version.  It’s a phrase we hear a thousand times per day — at least I do (with four kids , whenever I try to get any one of them to do anything!).  We often say it in frustration, in desperation — its subtext being the equivalent of shrugging one’s shoulders, or basically giving up, saying “I can’t, that’s all I’ve got.  What can I do?”

What Jesus says is different. He adds just two words, and asks,  “What can I do FOR YOU?” 

  • Now, I’m pretty sure Jesus would have healed Bartimaeus even if he didn’t respond to his question, but here he puts the ball into Bartimaeus’ court, and he replies, “Teacher, let me receive my sight.” And IMMEDIATELY he received his sight and followed him on the way.
FOR YOU.  That’s huge.  It not only sums up the Gospel message, the Good News that Christ gave His very life in order to save us from the even-Steven game of sin and sacrifice.  God loved us enough to send His only Son to atone for us — bring us back, restoring us to live as one with the Creator ’s purpose and Promise, through Jesus Christ.

  • Jesus Christ, our great High Priest — our second reading, from Hebrews  — “the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever…the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.”  Jesus did it once for all.  
For you.  For me.  For that homeless family in Love Park last weekend, whose 2-year old was found wandering around in the middle of the night.  For that person you might see across the street and don’t even know.  But we are all still growing, and we can all echo that first blind man’s words from Matthew 8, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.” 

  • My friends, God IS faithful, and does so much more than help those who help themselves.  God is in the transformation business!  We move from being conformed (which can include being curved into ourselves) to being transformed, as we read in Romans.  And that transformation leads us to reformation as individuals as well as the entire body of Christ. God’s Holy Spirit helps us come to Christ so that all of the Healer’s abundance can come to us.  That’s how our weeping turns into joy, as the Psalmist tells us this week.
It’s in moments like these that the Holy Spirit grabs hold of us. God knows precisely how each and every one of us is wired, and at the Spirit’s prompting, we may feel like crying, we may feel a warmth, we may feel the wind knocked out of us…but whatever it is, the Spirit calls us out of those everyday ordinary moments to stop, stand still, and in that stillness we are called to act, using the very words that Jesus said to blind Bart.  

  • Stop, stand still, ask, and go.  “ GO, for your faith has healed you.”  In asking this question, Jesus gave Bartimaeus permission to excercise the faith that led to his healing, and Jesus question now becomes our own:   —  “What do you want me to do FOR YOU?” AMEN.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


GOSPEL SUMMARY - Lisa Helmel Thomas

Several weeks ago on Facebook, one of my childhood friends posted the following statement: "I'm thinking of becoming a Catholic."  In her case,  this is a somewhat loaded statement that requires further explanation.

Chloe (not her real name) grew up with me in an Assemblies of God church, a very conservative denomination much like those we find in the news today, protesting contemporary human rights issues "in the name of God."  Therefore, her post was borne of a sense of frustration over how her faith was being represented in the media.  Chloe, now having moderate to liberal political views, no longer wanted to be associated with this particular point of view, and felt that her answer to this was to "convert" to Catholicism.

I had no qualms about her decision, but in an effort to inform her of other options, decided to tell her a little bit about my journey as a Lutheran.  While I was baptized in a German Lutheran church at the age of six months, my mother had discovered the Assemblies of God church down the street not long after, and my two siblings and I were raised there for the next twenty years or so.  It was not until after I completed my graduate work and began a career as a church musician that I would "rediscover" Lutheranism and learn to cherish the Gospel in a different way from how I was raised.

This is how I responded to Chloe's post:

Chloe,  I can only speak for myself, but my discovery of the ELCA denomination was truly refreshing, especially after being raised the way we were.  I love the structure and the liturgy and I especially appreciate how they allow EVERYONE to come to the Lord's Table.  Similar to Catholicism, what sets Lutherans apart from most of the other Protestant denominations is their belief that the elements of Holy Communion literally become Christ's Body and Blood (I.e. not only symbols). It (not the Sermon as it was where we grew up), is the high point of their worship service.  I will not speak for Catholicism, but I have heard that they do no welcome everyone to the Table, though I'm not 100 percent sure.

As a Lutheran, the Gospel makes much more sense to me now in spite of all the "good Bible learning" we had while growing up.  The difference is that it enables me to put my faith to good use, truly knowing that we are 'saved' -- not by anything we do ourselves, but because God came down to us in the first place.  Therefore, we don't have to "decide" or earn Brownie points in order to get to heaven. It's already been done for us, as God's idea and plan!

This is really so amazing that we, in turn, as Gods creation, want to serve and follow God out of our gratitude and the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.  It then becomes not so much about getting to heaven as it is about responding to God's great love for us in the here and now, not waiting for glory or focusing on the future, where there is a sure and certain hope of the Resurrection  just as Jesus was raised back to life.

Yes, we have a choice - we are all both sinners and saints at the same time - but His grace compels us, not His wrath.  I hope this makes some kind of sense and might be of help,to you.

Our hymns are many, varied and great, and we do throw in some praise songs in there too depending on which church you go to.  Check it out. Sorry I'm so heavy and preachy  on you.  I guess it's my thing and I can't help it.  Take what works and leave the rest.  Best of luck wherever your path will lead you.  Love you!

A few days later, one of the members of our church's Praise Team seemed a bit disillusioned by some of the things he read in another Facebook group known as "I'm Fed Up with Bad Church Music" -- not exactly an uplifting group, and one hat can be rather daunting to lay musicians caught unawares,  The postings here are often fraught with snobbery and judgmental attitudes.  In my response to him, I was trying to explain music selection from a Lutheran's perspective on the Gospel:

My friend, you are great just as you are and God can use you!  There is no such thing as a perfect Christian OR a perfect musician.  We need to remember that ALL we have comes from God, and we're just giving back to Him what is actually His. If we end up having fun in the process, or feeling fulfilled during a really awesome jam session, then that is God blessing us and just an extension of His grace and free gifts.

Part of the reason why I love Luther(anism) is because of,the Latin phrase similar justus et peccator.  This means that we are  simultaneously sinners and saints. We are human, and praise God we were made that way.  God loves us.  In turn, we care -- and because we care, we serve.  Because we serve, we grow into a community of,faith, and our own faith grows as a result.  There is nothing you have to DO to become a "better" Christian.  The Holy Spirit will lead you toward wanting to "walk the talk."

Though both of my friends know Christ and had some familiarity with the Gospel, I was grateful to be able to share my perspective with them, not in an effort to correct or change them, but in the spirit of encouragement inspire them to to perhaps dig deeper in their faith.

As for me, I find connection to the Gospel in the simplest things of everyday life.
 The Gospel feeds me.  It brings miracles, large and small, seemingly out of nothing.

Lately, I have taken time to bake bread.  Especially now, when funds are scarce.  My husband was home all summer, which is an extremely rare occurrence. Usually we pack up the household and travel to wherever he happens to be contracted to perform.  For the past ten to fifteen years, this has generally  been summer opera  festivals, where the family comes along.  Now, because he is less employed, he becomes grumpy at times.  The smell of fresh bread seems to cheer him up, if only momentarily.  But it seems to translate into hope. it makes me feel, if just for a minute, that the stress and uncertainty  surrounding uncertain income, guilt that I am not doing enough to contribute, is lifting. I can always combine the simplest of ingredients, almost magically, into a dough that soon becomes a sumptuous loaf of bread.

Tonight, there happens to be a glorious sunset. I wonder how this happens, especially after a cloudy, rainy day.  But it does.  While it isn't a rainbow, its striated colors bring promise just the same -- a promise that tomorrow is on the heels of this closing day, with another chance to renew itself.

The Gospel feeds me and with it brings the hope of healing.  The Gospel feeds me and the healing brings faith.  Faith comes by hearing the Word, which is where doubt and fear intersect with hope and resurrection. The Cross.

The Holy Spirit, the very Essence of Love itself. creates and sustains life.  Through it, through love, God is able to create life and humanity.  God's Son, Jesus Christ, assumes the very Image of God in human form yet exists eternally and in essence through the Holy Spirit, Who continually reminds, renews, and rejuvenates us in our daily lives.

Thus, the Gospel produces a chain reaction that connects us to God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.  Thanks be to God!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Kein Wiedersehen

Silence, distance, space
Choke, alienate
Missing everyone.
Life passes by.

Nicht genug.